Chris Young: No repeat of Di Canio’s shambolic Sunderland pre-season

Gus Poyet.
Gus Poyet.
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PAOLO DI CANIO did not subscribe to the merits of pre-season friendlies.

Double or triple training sessions were Di Canio’s Holy Grail. Participating in mundane, slow-tempo July encounters against lower league opposition were merely an unnecessary distraction.

As such, Sunderland’s pre-season programme 12 months ago became shambolic.

A behind-closed-doors 13-1 romp against Di Canio’s mates in Italy – players who would have struggled to earn a place in the Dog and Duck Third XI – was hardly appropriate preparation for the demands of the Premier League.

Sunderland did come up against top-flight opposition when Di Canio could muster little protest to the financial rewards stemming from the club’s participation in the Barclays Asia Trophy.

But even then, games against Spurs and Manchester City on a Hong Kong mud-bath proved more beneficial to shower gel sales than developing any sense of match sharpness.

If Di Canio had his way, that would have been Sunderland’s lot. Why bother with more friendlies when you can enjoy an extra day on the training ground?

The Italian was eventually cajoled into Sunderland’s participation in a dress rehearsal friendly in Denmark, yet that was very much from the school of pre-season organisation.

Given the way Di Canio’s relationship with his players began to unravel after his post-match rant, following the 1-0 win over FC Midtjylland, perhaps the Italian should have had his way all along.

Di Canio thought he knew better than the thousands of other managers who have spent decades leading their sides into at least half-a-dozen warm-up games before the season’s curtain-raiser.

He didn’t.

While the huge quantities of cardio work Sunderland’s players did during pre-season was perhaps a factor in the lack of long-term injuries among the squad, they were drastically short on match sharpness.

It was one of the many factors which led to Di Canio losing his job.

In each of the five league games which Di Canio oversaw at the start of the campaign, Sunderland conceded in the second half – twice in the last 25 minutes of each of his final three matches at the helm.

The conditioning – or lack of it – of Sunderland’s players was immediately seized upon by Kevin Ball after taking caretaker charge.

It proved to be similarly evident to Poyet, with the work of fitness coach Antonio Pintas – who spent the World Cup with the Russian national side – one of the factors for the dramatic upturn in fortunes over the second half of the season.

Tellingly, Sunderland have gone back to a traditional pre-season under Poyet – a week or so training and playing in hotter climes following a handful of games against local, lower league outfits.

Since the turn of the year, Poyet has been dreaming about these six weeks working with his squad, without the sweaty brow and sleepless nights stemming from the threat of the relegation abyss.

He will relish the opportunity to shape these players from scratch – physically, mentally and tactically.

If the evidence of Poyet’s ability to fire fight when the odds are stacked against him are anything to go by, Sunderland should reap the rewards from this time too.

But Di Canio had one significant advantage over his successor.

The main parts of the jigsaw were coming together by this stage – deals for the big money signings Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini both completed by mid-July.

Poyet does not have that advantage.

There is no need to panic over the gulfs which still need filling in Sunderland’s squad.

That’s the drawback of having to recruit in a World Cup summer.

It takes time for the various parties to shift their focus away from events in Brazil to the domestic market.

It won’t come as a surprise to sporting director Lee Congerton, who has already spoken of how he expects to be finalising deals on transfer deadline day.

Sunderland have been active in bringing three Bosmans in and making several bids for others, yet. with another half dozen or so players needed, the time Poyet has to mould his new-look XI is ebbing away.

It clearly takes a while for Poyet’s philosophy to sink in.

The basics of “Poyet keep ball” were grasped by his fourth game at the helm, yet it took until January for Sunderland to improve significantly and six months in total for them to hit top gear.

A few weeks of intense training under Poyet and his staff during pre-season would drastically reduce that learning curve for the new boys – particularly if they are on board by the time Sunderland head to Portugal in just over a fortnight.

The schedule is in place for a far better start to the season than 12 months ago.

Now Sunderland need the squad in place to benefit from those preparations.